Bruce R. Medici said some very nice things about Fireball in a recent comment. He also said, “Carole would have most likely enjoyed it, and perhaps she may have had some choice words about it too.” I wondered every so often as I was writing Fireball whether Miss Lombard would approve of what I was doing. I knew I had found the real person, that I was uncovering the soul of this woman and artist, and does anyone really want to be laid bare before the world?
My friend Steve had a strong reaction to the Carole he read about in Fireball. Steve had known Gable, as discussed here previously, and had heard time and again from Clark and all the other MGM players wonderful stories about this glorious, perfectly remembered, bigger-than-life personality, Carole Lombard. Said Steve in his critique of Fireball, “I was surprised to find out that she was so spoiled and willfully stubborn and strong-headed. To have bullied her way thru life as it appears is surprising to me. Yes, she was attractive and full of joy and fun and laughter. But if you read between the lines, she was also so determined to do as she pleased, that at times I didn’t like her and wondered why so many others liked her. It also killed her.”
This is a bulletin to many: Carole Lombard lived a mortal existence and had shortcomings and frailties like we all do. She never wanted for money because she came from it, and so “spoiled” is a fair term. She did what she wanted with her life and if necessary could lean back on her heels and put up her dukes with any man who wanted a fight, including Hollywood moguls. She also most decidedly did put her own insecurity and self-interest ahead of the feelings of her traveling companions that last night in Indianapolis, with fatal results. So “willfully stubborn” certainly fits. Carole did bully Wink and Petey onto the fancy Sky Club that had taxied into the Indianapolis Municipal Airport. And she did it because of a very human, irrational, insecure, unLombard-like reaction to Lana Turner, a girl more than 10 years younger, petite, gorgeous, needy, and husband hunting. Ma was an intuitive creature, and could sense that Pa was hearing this siren’s song and liking the tones. She felt his distraction like she had never felt it in the chorines and bit players that had queued up previously for 15 or 30 minutes of the King’s time.
It was imperfect of Carole Lombard to react this way and force her mother and Otto Winkler onto a plane after promising both repeatedly that they would not have to fly on the bond tour. She strong-armed Petey onto the plane even though Petey knew the numerology was all wrong and she begged her daughter not to get onto the plane. Imagine, your mother begs you. And poor Otto had dreamt he would die if he got on a plane on this trip. It gives me chills even now to write that sentence.
Luckily, Carole found a writer who is also an apologist for human frailties. I don’t hold her stubbornness against her. I don’t hold Gable’s roving eye and “swordsman” tendencies against him. How could we do either? How dare we do either? It’s easy for us to sit here all these years later and tsk-tsk as we turn the pages and say how we would not have done these things and conveniently look past our own imperfect lives and the things we’ve done less than optimally. It wasn’t easy to be a Hollywood star. They worked six out of seven days a week at the whim of their studios and were forced into the limelight almost every night of the week. Imagine everywhere you go you’re assailed for autographs and people tear at your clothes. The first hour would be awesome; after that, not at all. Imagine you have total power over everyone you meet. How would it warp you? Not at all? Forgive me if I have my doubts. So, yeah, Carole Lombard threw her weight around and got on that plane and then in Albuquerque she refused to give up her three seat assignments even though the law required it. That’s willfully stubborn and a half! In her own mind there were compelling reasons why she needed to do what she did, just as there were compelling reasons why Clark needed the attention of every female in sight.
I told Carole Lombard’s story without passing judgment on Carole Lombard and knowing her as I do, she wouldn’t give me as much as a “You can kiss my ass” about it. Somewhere on the other side of that cliff she ran into is an understanding that the train would have been better. There’s remorse over the fate of Petey and Wink and sorrow at letting her brothers and friends down, people she wanted to continue to see and love and cherish and support. Sorrow at deserting Clark and the ranch. Lessons always come at a price, and brother the price she paid. The price all these characters in Fireball paid for getting mixed up with dynamic, charge-straight-ahead Carole Lombard. Sure she was imperfect, but on balance no one ever quite got over her loss, not her husband or closest girlfriends or the grips on the pictures she made or anyone in between. All they would ever allow when they remembered the girl who lit up the sky as she streaked across it and then hit a granite cliff at 7,700 feet was, “That was Carole for you.” Human? Hell yes. Which is what made this a story, and why people can’t get enough of it.